Just Plain Dark


© — The face of Half Dome in Yosemite is largely dead vertical; 2,000 feet of dead vertical.  Typically climbed in three days, Dave Post and I decided to travel ultra-light, and run up it in one single push.  No haul bag full of water, food and bivouac gear; just our climbing hardware, light clothing, a couple of bottles of water, a handful of food, and little, incandescent alpine headlamps.

The trip started at Happy Iles in Yosemite Valley where we parked our car and shouldered our gear.  On up The Mist Trail and great stone stairway past Nevada and Vernal Falls, through Little Yosemite Valley, and up to the saddle between Half Dome and Clouds Rest.  From there we descended 1,500 feet over rocky talus to the base of the Half Dome Face.  We set up camp away from the face so the climbers above wouldn’t knock rocks down on us.  Up at 4:00am the next day, we were climbing by 5:00am at first light.

We went up the Northwest Face Route first ascended in 1957 by now famous activewear designer Royal Robbins.  (Some of which has disappeared since our climb in the mid-80s; see one such area at this link.) The first third of the climb was relatively easy going, with beautiful climbing.  Then came the Robbins Traverse (aka; The Pendulum).  The Robbins Traverse consists of a decades-old expansion bolt placed into the rock, with a hanger, and a couple of dozen various-age slings dangling off the hanger.  The game was to choose a sling that you thought would hold you, and swing across a featureless slab of granite onto another ledge.  It was a thrill filled with the history of famous climbers from all over the world.

From our newfound perch, we traveled up deep inside a huge crack (now missing) for two pitches.  Upon emerging from this crack, the sun went down, and darkness fell upon us.  Big-time darkness.  There was no moon out that night, and there is no ambient light that far up on Half Dome.  Without your headlamp on, you could see about two feet.  You couldn’t see your feet or an outstretched hand, and the ground had long-since disappeared.  Just plain dark.

With old-school, incandescent headlamps, you could lead the climb, but you could only see upwards about six to eight feet.  Finding gear for protection anchors was done by feel alone.  Route-finding was often guesswork.  And the person running the belay below had to turn off their headlamp to preserve the battery; running the rope was done by experience and feel.  At times both headlamps were off, and Dave and I were in contact with each other only by 160 feet of 11-millimeter rope.  We pushed on.

At about 2:00am, near the top, we came to Thank God Ledge.  Thank God Ledge, Pitch 21, is about 12″ to 14″ wide, and is actually a flake hanging just off the face, leaving a crack behind it.  There are two ways across Thank God Ledge: shimmy across standing upright, or hanging with one hand in the crack, one foot on the ledge, with the rest of you dangling in mid-air.  It was my turn to lead, so out I went.  I tried the shimmy method, got out about four feet, and shimmied back.  I could see that this was possible, but there was no way to put in protection anchors; bending over to reach the crack would directly cause you to tip over.  So, I went out hanging into the pitch black.

Somewhat nervous about all this, I put in lots of anchors; by the time I got to the other side, the numerous anchors caused so much friction on the rope that it moved with great difficulty.  Next on this lead was a 20-foot offwidth.  An offwidth is a man-eating crack; it’s too wide to climb by stuffing hands and feet into the crack, and too narrow to climb by gaining friction with hands and feet on opposing walls.  And they’re impossible to protect from a fall, as one doesn’t carry hardware to do so up a big wall like Half Dome.  This was one of those moments in mountaineering when you lose two options; turning back…and fear.  And with the rope drag, I couldn’t freely climb this thing.  So, I strenuously pull up 20 feet of slack, and headed up into the darkness.  Intensely focused on my every move, I wiggled upwards, and, with great relief, grabbed the first hold I could find, and pulled myself onto a ledge.

Dave’s turn, and he had equal “fun.”  He was gifted with the lead of the immensely runout Pitch 22.  Runout means, ‘Nowhere to put an anchor for a long time leading to extraordinary fall risk.’  Still dark.  Can’t turn back.  Can’t have fear.  Dave makes it to the top of the pitch…of course.  Now it’s my turn, again.

(*See quotes below from the Mountain Project website regarding the previously mentioned “fun” Dave and I had…!)

As light poured into The Valley, I led the last pitch.  I traveled quietly, setting anchors and moving upwards.  It was easy going, and I came to the last 15 feet of vertical wall.  I reached the summit, grabbed a length of slack…and went ape.  I screamed and danced; I could hear Dave hooting and hollering below me.  We had made the summit!

In those days, my light climbing gear included a two-piece windbreaker by Sierra Designs.  Back then Sierra Designs made all their equipment of brilliant primary colors.  My suit included a bright yellow jacket with red piping, and matching pants; my friends referred to me as ‘Banana Man.’  On my head was a lime-green helmet.  As I danced and screamed, I turned around, and saw a young couple sitting quietly 20 feet away, tucked cozily up against a large boulder.  With big, quiet eyes.  They were doing what I had done 15 years earlier: they had a permit to camp on top of Half Dome, and were watching the glorious sunrise.  First, the light gives the scene a surreal, painting-like perspective, then it lights up the peaks in the high country, next illuminating the valley walls, and cascading to the valley floor.  It is entirely peaceful, perfectly serene, and perfectly quiet.  Well…for most.

Imagine this: You’ve made it all the way to the top of Half Dome, up the cables on the backside with your pack, and the next morning, you locate the quietest place you can find away from all other humanity.  It’s 5:00am, and the scene is absolutely sublime.  Suddenly, a lime-green helmet pops over the edge in front of you.  Followed by Banana Man.  Who then becomes a screaming, hopping lunatic.

Pulling myself together, I went over and introduced myself.  My wide-eyed audience was from Germany…and I was, at that moment, their American ambassador. Oh, well.

Dave summited behind me, 24 1/2 hours after we began.  We headed down the cables, and then back down the talus to camp to pack up. Finally, with all our gear, back up the talus, down through Little Yosemite Valley, and past the falls.  Next, the cafeteria.  Really, really tired.

Bob Hansen

*The Mountain Project quotes…

“The Psychological Crux–The aforementioned Thank God Ledge Traverse lives up to its billing. You won’t forget it. Watch your rope drag, too.” (Bob…at 200am…)

“The Technical Crux–Color me stupid, but the 5.8 squeeze [] after the Thank God Ledge traverse is something that no man or woman should need to endure.”  (Again…Bob…back-to back following “The Psychological Crux”)

“The Routefinding Crux –For me it was pitch 22. As the topo suggests, there is a smattering of bolts all over the darn thing. Trick is, it’s hard to determine which bolts to use and which to forego. Seems as though folks have bolted different variations and knowing which bolt to pendulum to and which to pendulum from is a nit bit tricky.” (Yeh…tricky..at 3:00am…just plain dark…Nice Work Dave!)

Copyright – Robert W. Hansen – 2012

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